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Towle, Charlotte

in: People
Charlotte Towle. Laurin Hyde and Wilman Walker
Charlotte Towle. Laurin Hyde and Wilman Walker – Courtesy: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Charlotte Towle (1896- 1966): Social Worker, Academic, Author of “Common Human Needs”


Introduction: Charlotte Towle’s major accomplishments include her work in creating a generic casework curriculum, her study of the educational process of training social workers and other professionals in human service, and her attempts to link the understanding of human behavior and needs with the administration of public assistance and other public programs.

Early Years: Towle was born in Montana, and graduated from Goucher College with a bachelor’s degree. After graduation, she did volunteer work for the American Red Cross and worked for the Veterans Bureau in San Francisco and as a psychiatric caseworker in a neuro-psychiatric hospital in Tacoma, Washington. Under a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in 1926, Towle studied at the New York School of Social Work. She then took a position as director of the Home Finding Department of the Children’s Aid Society in Philadelphia and taught part time at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work.

In 1928 Towle went to the Institution for Child Guidance in New York City where she supervised students from New York and Smith College. In 1932, she became a full time faculty member at the University of Chicago School of Social Service where she taught until her retirement in 1962. She had been recruited by another pioneer, Edith Abbott partly because of her western heritage, her experience with the seriously mentally ill, and with working in mental hospitals. Her initial assignment was to develop a sequence in psychiatric casework to balance the school’s emphasis on social welfare policy. Her teaching was concentrated in the casework and human growth and development sequences and in courses on the dynamics of learning and supervision.

Towle deeply influenced the profession of social work through the development of a client-centered casework curriculum which enabled all social workers to secure knowledge of human behavior in a variety of ways of helping. Through establishment of a focus on the relationship between inner life and the social environment, through the development of a human growth and behavior sequence in which content was selected and taught by social workers rather than by psychiatrists, and through the development of a theory of professional education Towle’s ideas were spread by her students, other faculty members, and by the courses she taught at other schools of social work, the workshops and institutes she conducted throughout the country, and her consultation to a variety of local and national health and welfare programs.

Towle published extensively including sixty-nine articles and three books. Perhaps her most famous publication was Common Human Needs, a manual written for the Bureau of Public Assistance of the then United States Social Security Board to be used by public assistance workers. This became a controversial document because it was interpreted to be a “socialistic” publication. As a result of the protest initiated by American Medical Association, the Government Printing Office ceased publication of Common Human Needs and destroyed its inventory. Social workers and others protested the banning but it was not lifted. NASW subsequently republished the book which remains a classic.

Towle’s papers are located in the Department of Special Collections, Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. Towle was given an honorary doctor of laws at Western Reserve University. in Cleveland. The citation states, “Charlotte Towle, social work, leader, and scholar, yours is an advancing profession in which the knowledge of recently appearing disciplines must be incorporated into a difficult practicing art. You have contributed to that profession as a scholar of high intellectual gifts, as a practitioner of unusual skill, as a teacher capable of inspiring students. Because you have given outstanding to your fellows, because you have graced our profession of teaching, because by your efforts social work is capable of coping more skillfully with the problems and ills of our society, we delight to honor you.” In the same year, 1962, she received an award citation from the National Conference of Social Welfare for her unique professional contributions. In her addition to her teaching and writing, Towle provided consultation to several government agencies including the Veterans Administration and the National Institute of Mental Health and was a member of the Social Work Advisory Committee to the Committee on Advancement of Psychiatry of the American Psychiatric Association.

(Note: A very thoughtful paper discussing Charlotte Towle’s book — Common Human Needs — and Ms. Towle’s contributions to the development of social work theory and practice was presented by Linda Gordon, Ph.D., professor of history at New York University, May 30, 1996, at a Conference in Honor of Charlotte Towle sponsored by the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. A copy of the paper can be found here under the tab sRECOLLECTIONS. It is titled: Fitting Charlotte Towle Into The History Of Welfare Thought In The U.S.)